Bioinformatics is a field which uses computers to store and analyze molecular biological information. Using this information in a digital format, bioinformatics can then solve problems of molecular biology, predict structures, and even simulate macromolecules. In a more general sense, bioinformatics may be used to describe any use of computers for the purposes of biology, but the molecular-biology specific definition is by far the most common.
At the beginning of the 21st century, scientists began sequencing entire species' genomes and storing them on computers, allowing for the use of bioinformatics to model and track a number of fascinating things. One of these applications is in deducing evolutionary change in a species. By examining a genome and watching how it changes over time, evolutionary biologists can actually trace evolution as it occurs.
The most well-known application of bioinformatics is sequence analysis. In sequence analysis, DNA sequences of various organisms are stored in databases for easy retrieval and comparison. The well-reported Human Genome Project is an example of sequence analysis bioinformatics. Using massive computers and various methods of collecting sequences, the entire human genome was sequenced and stored within a structured database.
DNA sequences used for bioinformatics can be collected in a number of ways. One method is to go through a genome and search out individual sequences to record and store. Another method is to simply grab huge amounts of fragments and compare them all, finding whole sequences by overlapping the redundant segments. The latter method, known as shotgun sequencing, is currently the most popular because of its ease and speed.
By comparing known sequences of a genome to specific mutations, much information can be gleaned about undesirable mutations such as cancers. With the completed mapping of the human genome, bioinformatics has become very important in the research of cancers in the hope of an eventual cure.
Computers are also used to collect and store broader data about species. The Species 2000 project, for example, aims to collect a large amount of information about every species of plant, fungus, and animal on the earth. This information can then be used for a number of applications, including tracking changes in populations and biomes.
There are many other applications of bioinformatics, including predicting entire protein strands, learning how genes express themselves in various species, and building complex models of entire cells. As computing power increases and our databases of genetic and molecular information expand, the realm of bioinformatics is sure to grow and change drastically, allowing us to build models of incredible complexity and utility.